Kindle Comparison

We have put together a Kindle comparison so you can easily see the differences between all the current Amazon e-readers that are available to buy. We take a look at the original device and how things have evolved over the years. Our Kindle comparison chart should help you easily see the differences between each model.

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This MIDI-powered robotic music box is the good news I needed this week

It’s been a bit of a tumultuous week, to put it lightly, but one must always remember that no matter how dire things look on the global stage, there are always makers working obsessively to create something beautiful and useless — like this MIDI-driven, robotic music box.

Tinkerer and music box aficionado Mitxela (via Hackaday) was pleased by this music box that takes punch cards or rolls as input, rather than having a metal drum with the notes sticking out of it. But who wants to punch cards all day to make a music box go? These things are supposed to be simple!

Mitxela first made a script that takes a MIDI file and outputs an image compatible with his laser cutter, allowing cards or paper strips to be created more or less automatically. But then there’s the question of wear and tear, storing the strips, taping them together for long pieces… why not just have the MIDI controller drive the music box directly?

It clearly took some elbow grease, but he managed to create a lovely little machine that does just that. The MIDI pattern maps to a set of small servos, each of which is attached to a rigid brass wire and plastic tip. When the servo activates, the tip pushes the corresponding little cylinder in the music box, producing a note.

Now MIDI files (single-instrument ones, anyway) can be played directly. But there’s more! Mitxela’s efforts to lower the power draw and simplify the mechanisms had the incidental side effect of lowering the latency so much that you can even play the music box in real time using a MIDI keyboard. How delightful!

The video has quite a few breaks to listen to video game themes, so if you’re just interested in the device, you can skip through to the (relatively) technical parts. But hearing the Mario theme tinkling through a neat little gadget like this isn’t the worst way to spend a Friday afternoon after a week like this one.

You can check out the rest of Mitxela’s little hardware projects at his website.

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Rainforest Connection enlists machine learning to listen for loggers and jaguars in the Amazon

The vastness that makes the Amazon rainforest so diverse and fertile also makes it extremely difficult to protect. Rainforest Connection is a project started back in 2014 that used solar-powered second-hand phones as listening stations that could alert authorities to sounds of illegal logging. And applying machine learning has supercharged the network’s capabilities.

The original idea is still in play: modern smartphones are powerful and versatile tools, and work well as wireless sound detectors. But as founder Topher White explained in an interview, the approach is limited to what you can get the phones to detect.

Originally, he said, the phones just listened for certain harmonics indicating, for example, a chainsaw. But bringing machine learning into the mix wrings much more out of the audio stream.

“Now we’re talking about detecting species, gunshots, voices, things that are more subtle,” he said. “And these models can improve over time. We can go back into years of recordings to figure out what patterns we can pull out of this. We’re turning this into a big data problem.”

White said he realized early on that the phones couldn’t do that kind of calculation, though — even if their efficiency-focused CPUs could do it, the effort would probably drain the battery. So he began working with Google’s TensorFlow platform to perform the training and integration of new data in the cloud.

Google also helped produce a nice little documentary about one situation where Guardians could help native populations deter loggers and poachers:

That’s in the Amazon, obviously, but Rainforest Connection has also set up stations in Cameroon and Sumatra, with others on the way.

Machine learning models are particularly good at finding patterns in noisy data that sound logical but defy easy identification through other means.

For instance, White said, “We should be able to detect animals that don’t make sounds. Jaguars might not always be vocalizing, but the animals around them are, birds and things.” The presence of a big cat then, might be easier to detect by listening for alarmed bird calls than for its near-silent movement through the forest.

The listening stations can be placed as far as 25 kilometers (about 15 miles) from the nearest cell tower. And because a device can detect chainsaws a kilometer away and some species half a kilometer away, it’s not like they need to be on every tree.

But, as you may know, the Amazon is rather a big forest. He wants more people to get involved, especially students. White partnered with Google to launch a pilot program where kids can build their own “Guardian,” as the augmented phone kits are called. When I talked with him it was moments before one such workshop in LA.

Topher White and students at one of the Guardian building workshops.

“We’ve already done three schools and I think a couple hundred students, plus three more in about half an hour,” he told me. “And all these devices will be deployed in the Amazon over the next three weeks. On Earth day they’ll be able to see them, and download the app to stream the sounds. It’s to show these kids that what they do can have an immediate effect.”

“An important part is making it inclusive, proving these things can be built by anyone in the world, and showing how anyone can access the data and do something cool with it. You don’t need to be a data scientist to do it,” he continued.

Getting more people involved is the key to the project, and to that end Rainforest Connection is working on a few new tricks. One is an app you’ll be able to download this summer “where people can put their phone on their windowsill and get alerts when there’s a species in the back yard.”

The other is a more public API; currently only partners like companies and researchers can access it. But with a little help, all the streams from the many online Guardians will be available for anyone to listen to, monitor and analyze. But that’s all contingent on having money.

“If we want to keep this program going, we need to find some funding,” White said. “We’re looking at grants and at corporate sponsorship — it’s a great way to get kids involved too, in both technology and ecology.”

Donations help, but partnerships with hardware makers and local businesses are more valuable. Want to join up? You can get at Rainforest Connection here.

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The NEEO universal remote is a modern Logitech Harmony alternative

The advanced universal remote market is not a very crowded market. In fact, for a while now, Logitech’s Harmony line has been pretty much the only game in town. Newcomer NEEO wants to upset that monopoly with its new NEEO Remote and NEEO Brain combo ($369), which is a system that can connect just about any AV system, along with a smorgasbord of connected smart devices including Nest, Philips Hue, Sonos and more.

NEEO’s two-part system includes the Brain, which, true to its name, handles all of the heavy lifting. This is a puck-shaped device with 360-degree IR blasters dotting its outside perimeter, and which has one IR extender out (there’s one in the box) for connecting devices held within a closed AV cabinet, for instance. This central hub also connects to your Wi-Fi network, and setup requires plugging it into your router via Ethernet to get everything squared away, similar to how you initially set up Sonos speakers, if you’re familiar with that process.

Most of the setup work you need to do to get NEEO working happens on your phone, and that’s where it becomes apparent that this smart remote was designed for a modern context. Logitech’s Harmony software has come a long way, and now you can do everything you need to do from the iOS and Android app, but it’s still somewhat apparent that its legacy is as something you initially setup using a desktop and somewhat awkward web-based software. The NEEO feels at home on mobile, and it makes the setup and configuration process much better overall.

The other core component of the NEEO system is the NEEO Remote. This is a fantastic piece of industrial design, first of all. It’s a sleek rectangle crafted from aerospace-grade aluminum that oozes charm, in a way that nothing in the current Logitech Harmony lineup can come close to matching. The minimalist design still doesn’t suffer from the ‘which way is up?’ problem that the Apple Remote faces, because of subtle design cues including bottom weighting and the presence of ample physical buttons.

A NEEO Remote isn’t necessary for the system to work – you can just use the Brain along with the companion app for iPhone or Android, but the remote is a joy to hold and use, thanks to its unique design, and it features a super high density display that’s extremely responsive to touch input and pleasingly responsive to touch. NEEO took a lot of time to get this touchscreen experience right, and it pays off, delivering a clear and simple control interface that shifts to suit the needs of whatever activity you’re running at the time.

The NEEO Remote also has an “SOS” feature so that you can locate it if you happen to misplace it, and it can even be configured to recognize different hands if you want to set profiles for distinct members of the household, or set parental control profiles limiting access to certain content or devices. This kind of thing is where NEEO’s feature set exceeds the competition, and shows a particular attention to modern device use cases.

One NEEO Remote can also control multiple NEEO Brains, which is another limitation of the completion. That means you can set up NEEO Brains in each room where you have devices to control, and carry your remote from place to place instead of having to have multiple. The NEEO Brain is still $200 on its own, however, so it’s definitely still a barrier to entry.

NEEO otherwise does pretty much everything you’d expect a smart remote to do in 2018: You can set recipes on the deice itself, including with triggers like time-based alarms or motion detection (without using IFTTT). You can connect it to Alexa, though that functionality is limited at the moment, with more updates promised in future to make this better.

The bottom line is that NEEO offers a competent, intelligent alternative the big dog on the block, Logitech’s Harmony system. Logitech’s offering is still more robust and mature in terms of delivering Alexa and Google Assistant compatibility, as well as rock solid performance, but NEEO has some clever ideas and unique takes that will serve more patient and tech-forward users better over time.

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Apple could be announcing a new cheap iPad

According to a new report from Bloomberg, Apple could be unveiling a new version of its entry-level iPad at its event next week. The company is holding a press event on March 27 in Chicago. And the only thing that we know is that the event is going to be focused on the education market.

Apple launched a cheap iPad in March 2017 without any press conference. This iPad looks like the iPad Air 2 with a 9.7-inch retina display and an A9 chip — the chip that first appeared in the iPhone 6S. More importantly, the entry-level iPad that is simply called “iPad” only costs $320 for the 32GB version.

And it sounds like Apple is ready to introduce an updated version of this iPad. Maybe you can expect a True Tone display and faster components for instance. Hardware is just one part as Bloomberg also says that there will be new iOS features for the classroom.

While the iPad seems to be a great device for the classroom, Google has convinced many schools with its Chromebooks. These laptops are cheap, secure and easy to maintain. You can currently buy Lenovo Chromebooks for $179 without taking into account educational discounts.

Even if Apple chooses to reduce its margins with its new entry-level iPad, this could be a smart bet. Tech companies rely more than ever on the ecosystem of services and devices that they created.

Chances are you’ll like Android phones and Google services if you’ve spent years using Google Docs and Gmail on a Chromebook. Students who use an iPad every day could then become loyal Apple customers in the future.

Rumor has it that Apple is also working on an updated MacBook Air with an affordable price. But Bloomberg thinks the new laptop won’t be ready in time for next week’s event.

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Hold this beam for me, friend robot, and let us construct a house together

Being a neophyte in the world of woodworking — I’ve made a shabby but sturdy shed — I can appreciate the value of a good partner who can help measure, cut, hold stuff and generally be a second pair of hands. The usual drawback with humans is you have to pay them or feed them in return for this duty. So imagine my delight in finding that ETH Zürich is pioneering the art of robot-assisted woodworking!

The multi-institutional Spatial Timber Assemblies DFAB House project is an effort to increase the efficiency not just of the process of framing a home, but also of the design itself.

The robot part is as you might expect, though more easily said than created. A pair of ceiling-mounted robot arms in the work area pluck and cut beams to length, put them in position and drill holes where they will later be attached.

Most of this can be accomplished without any human intervention, and what’s more, without reinforcement plates or scaffolding. The designs of these modules (room-size variations that can be mixed and matched) are generated specifically to be essentially freestanding; load and rigidity are handled by the arrangement of beams.

The CAD work is done ahead of time and the robots follow the blueprint, carefully avoiding one another and working slowly but efficiently.

“If any change is made to the project overall, the computer model can be constantly adjusted to meet the new requirements,” explained Matthias Kohler, who heads the project, in an ETHZ news release. “This kind of integrated digital architecture is closing the gap between design, planning and execution.”

Human workers have to do the bolting step, but that step too seems like it could be automated; the robots may not have the sensors or tools available to undertake it at present.

Eventually the beams will also be reinforced by similarly prefabbed concrete posts and slot into a “smart slab,” optimized for exactly these layouts and created by sand-based 3D printing. The full three-story structure should be complete and open to explore this fall. You can learn more at the project’s website.

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